The secret's out: Chile is one of the most naturally beautiful countries in Latin America, which places it high in the running for one of the most naturally beautiful countries in the world. This two-week adventure covers three of its most incredible regions. The first major stop on the itinerary is the northern Atacama Desert, which is famous for its lunar landscapes, steaming geysers, and expansive salt flats. Then it's off to Torres del Paine, the most-visited national park in Chilean Patagonia. Finally, you'll visit Rapa Nui, or Easter Island as its commonly known, to discover the secrets of its great stone idols.

Highlights

  • Discover Santiago de Chile on a city tour
  • Visit geysers, lagoons, salt flats, and lunar landscapes in the Atacama Desert
  • Hike up to the top of Base Torres, the most famous viewpoint in Torres del Paine
  • Travel to Easter Island and learn the secrets of the moai, the great stone idols found nowhere else on earth

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Santiago de Chile Santiago
Day 2 Santiago City Tour Santiago
Day 3 Santiago to Calama - Transfer to San Pedro de Atacama & Stargazing Tour San Pedro de Atacama
Day 4 Atacama Desert Tour: Lagoons & Salt Flats San Pedro de Atacama
Day 5 Tatio Geysers & Machuca Village San Pedro de Atacama
Day 6 Flight from San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago Santiago
Day 7 Santiago to Patagonia: Torres del Paine National Park Torres del Paine
Day 8 Torres del Paine: Trekking to the Base of the Towers Torres del Paine
Day 9 Torres del Paine Free Day Torres del Paine
Day 10 Torres del Paine to Santiago Santiago
Day 11 Fly from Santiago to Easter Island Easter Island
Day 12 Easter Island: Rapa Nui Full-Day Tour Easter Island
Day 13 Easter Island: Orongo & Ahu Akivi Easter Island
Day 14 Easter Island to Santiago & Departure  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Santiago de Chile

Hike or take a gondola up to the top of Cerro San Cristobal
Hike or take a gondola up to the top of Cerro San Cristobal

Welcome to Chile! Upon arrival at Santiago International Airport, a driver will meet you and transfer you to your hotel. You'll have the rest of the day to explore the city at your leisure. 

Suggested activities include:

  • Hike to the top of Cerro San Cristobal, where you can get your bearings by surveying the area from a high vantage point. Pathways lead 2,788 feet (850 m) up this central hill to a series of lookouts that offer wraparound views of Santiago. If you aren't the hiking type, not to worry: catch a scenic gondola instead.

  • Stroll the cobblestone streets of Barrio Bellavista. On the north side of Santiago, you'll find this trendy enclave, at once fashionable and bohemian. Stroll past colorful houses adorned with graffiti art and choose between an eclectic array of eateries and bars—great for people watching. 

  • Visit the Plaza de Armas, a stone plaza located in Santiago's historic center dating to 1541. There's also the impressive Catedral Metropolitana, a neoclassical church dating to 1748 whose towering twin bell towers dominate the north side of the plaza.

  • Snap pics in front of the Palacio de la Moneda. Chile's opulent Presidential Palace (known simply as "La Moneda") is a short stroll from the Plaza de Armas. It was here in 1973 that Chile's armed forces, backed by the U.S. government, overthrew President Salvador Allende, kicking off a brutal right-wing military dictatorship that would last for 17 years. Visitors are welcome.

For dinner be sure to get out of the hotel and enjoy a culinary adventure in the city. In recent years Santiago has emerged as a global foodie destination. Chilean chefs are reinventing traditional dishes like empanadas, cazuelas (stews), and seafood with ingredients harvested all the way from the northern deserts and southern Patagonian regions. You can find great restaurants and wine bars not only in the Bellavista neighborhood but also in the revitalized historic barrios of Yungay and Italia.

Day 2: Santiago City Tour

Santiago's bustling central market
Santiago's bustling central market

Like any great city, Santiago's cultural pulse is found in its people, marketplaces, and cuisine. To that end, today you'll head out on a guided city tour. Depending on your preference, this will either be a full-day or half-day tour with an English-speaking guide. Regardless of which one you choose, you'll become an honorary Santiaguino!

Tour highlights:

  • Wander the aisles of Santiago's labyrinthine Mercado Central and Mercado La Vega. These markets are the beating heart of the city, overflowing with vendors and local residents eager to get their hands on the day's fresh produce. 

  • Visit the Catedral Metropolitana, a neoclassical church dating to 1748 and whose towering twin bell towers dominate the north side of the plaza.

  • Head to the glittering Costanera Center, an epic skyscraper encased in glass! For one of the best and certainly highest views in Latin America, go to the Sky viewpoint. At nearly 1,000 feet (304 m) high, the top offers 360-degree views of the city below, as well as the surrounding Andes.

  • Visit Cerro Santa Lucia, a small, manicured park in the center of Santiago. As you stroll up the hill, make sure to stop and see Fuente Neptuno and Castillo Hidalgo, two impressive structures located within the grounds. 

  • If you haven't done it yet, ascend to the top of Cerro San Cristóbal via hike or cable car. Enjoy the 360° panoramas and take plenty of photos, as these are the most incredible views in Santiago.

Day 3: Santiago to Calama - Transfer to San Pedro de Atacama & Stargazing Tour

The Valley of the Moon
The Valley of the Moon

This morning, transfer from your hotel to the airport for your flight to the city of Calama, located in the far north of the country. Upon arrival, another driver will meet you for the hour-and-20-minute drive to the desert outpost of San Pedro de Atacama. This is the embarkation point for all excursions and adventures into the Atacama Desert.

During the journey between these two places, you will see some of the most evocative and ancient landscapes anywhere in the world. This high-altitude desert abounds with seemingly endless salt flats, painted hills that change color depending on the light, towering Andean peaks, and the volcanic Domeyko Cordillera, where flaming red mountains create the base of Moon Valley.

Upon arrival at San Pedro, you will check into your hotel and relax for the remainder of the afternoon until it's time for your first excursion. At the scheduled time, a driver will meet you and you'll transfer 15 minutes outside of town into the desert. This is where you'll enjoy the evening's stargazing outing. 

First, you will sit for a 20-minute presentation where you'll learn some basic astronomy concepts. You'll then head outside to the open Altiplano and learn how to identify various constellations. This desert plateau is an ideal spot for stargazing due to its high altitude (about 2,308 meters/7,900 feet). Even seen from the naked eye, the stars here are more vivid than anything you've likely experienced before. Finally, the outing culminates by viewing the sky through high-powered telescopes and binoculars. You'll be able to spot a wide array of celestial objects, including planets, binary stars, spherical clusters, and others. Even better, you'll do your stargazing accompanied by a glass of good Chilean wine.

At the end of this astronomical outing, you'll return to San Pedro de Atacama.

Day 4: Atacama Desert Tour: Lagoons & Salt Flats

The Chilean Altiplano
The Chilean Altiplano

Today you'll embark on a full-day excursion into the Atacama Desert. After breakfast, a driver will pick you up at the hotel and you'll head out to the first destination: Laguna Chaxa. Located 50 km (31 miles) from San Pedro sits this desert oasis in the middle of the Atacama Salar salt flats. Also here is the Los Flamencos National Reserve. Even from afar you'll be able to spot the Chilean flamingos that call this reserve home as their pink feathers shine brightly against the contrasting blue of the shallow water.

At lunchtime, the tour will stop in Socaire, a humble agricultural village famous for its simple adobe homes, rustic chapel, and slow pace of life. After eating, the tour will continue towards the Altiplano (high plateau) lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques, which are located at a whopping 4,200 meters (13,779 feet) in elevation. You might feel a bit lightheaded, so try not to exert yourself and be sure to drink plenty of water. Enjoy the panoramic views of an altiplano desert surrounded by towering volcanoes and abounding with wildlife like flamencos, foxes, and vicunas.

The last stop on the tour is a visit to the town of Toconao, an oasis with a climate ideal for the cultivation of native fruits and vegetables. You'll stroll the streets, shop for handicrafts, and admire local homes cobbled together out of volcanic rocks. You'll also visit the white-washed church with its famous three-storied belltower. The church itself dates back to 1750 and has been declared a national monument. 

Finally, at around 6 pm, you'll return to your hotel and can enjoy the rest of the evening in town. Note that the day's itinerary may vary according to weather and road conditions.

Day 5: Tatio Geysers & Machuca Village

Sunrise over the Tatio Geysers
Sunrise over the Tatio Geysers

Today's an early start as you'll depart the hotel at 4:30 am for the 1.5-hour trip to the Tatio Geysers. Getting a jump on the day will pay dividends, though, as seeing the sun rise over the Atacama Desert is a singular experience. Also, sunrise is the best time to visit Tatio. The contrast between the cold outside temperatures and the boiling water of the geothermal field beneath the earth's surface causes the pillars of steam here to rise as high as 10 meters (30 feet). 

At an altitude of 4,320 meters (14,173 feet), the Tatio Geysers are the highest in the world. So take your time and admire these otherworldly landscapes, snap plenty of photos, and at the appropriate hour breakfast will be served on site. Another option is to take a relaxing soak in a natural geothermal pool—mother nature's jacuzzi.

On the return drive to San Pedro, you'll stop at Machuca, a small, humble village on the Altiplano whose residents have bred llamas and harvested Yareta (moss-like evergreen plants that can survive for thousands of years) for generations. It's a small but welcoming town, comprised of only about 20 homes and a simple chapel. That said, some locals sell crafts, and you can admire the llamas in the area as well as the flamingos that reside in nearby marshlands.

You'll then return to San Pedro for lunch and can spend the remainder of the day relaxing in town.

Day 6: Flight from San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago

Atacama Desert
Atacama Desert

Today, you'll have a free morning to relax and explore San Pedro de Atacama on your own. In the afternoon, transfer to the Calama airport for your flight back to Santiago. Upon arrival in Santiago, transfer to your hotel. You'll have the rest of the day to relax in the city and explore at your leisure.

Day 7: Santiago to Patagonia: Torres del Paine National Park

Torres del Paine, with the Cuernos del Paine in the background
Torres del Paine, with the Cuernos del Paine in the background

Today is mostly a travel day, as you have a few transfers before arriving at the ultimate destination: Torres del Paine National Park. This is one of the most iconic and beautiful protected areas in Patagonia.

In the morning a driver will pick you up for the transfer to Santiago's airport, where you'll catch a flight to Punta Arenas, a city located deep in Chilean Patagonia on the shores of the Strait of Magellan. You'll then transfer from the airport in Punta Arenas for the three-hour drive to Torres del Paine, stopping en route in Puerto Natales, an attractive city situated on the Esperanza Sound. Here you'll enjoy a hearty local lunch complete with views across the water to the snowy peak of Mt. Balmaceda.    

You'll then continue on to Torres del Paine. On the remainder of the drive, you'll likely spot some of Patagonia's famed wildlife, including guanacos (a type of camelid similar to a llama) and rheas. You'll then enter the park and transfer to your hotel. 

Know that sunset usually occurs around 11 pm in the Patagonian summer months. So even though you'll arrive at your destination later in the day, you'll still have ample time to admire the surrounding mountain scenery. You certainly won't miss the iconic triple peaks of the Paine Massif, part of the Cordillera del Paine. They rise sharply into the sky like jagged horns, hence their nickname, the Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Paine).

Day 8: Torres del Paine: Trekking to the Base of the Towers

Base of Torres del Paine
Base of Torres del Paine

After breakfast, your excursion into the park will begin. Today you'll be heading up to the base of Torres del Paine on one of the most popular hiking routes in the park. Although it can be completed in less than a day, this hike is strenuous and requires a good level of physical fitness. However, the stunning views at the base of the Paine massif make it well worth the effort. 

The trekking route covers 18 km (11 miles) and lasts about nine hours. Every step of the way you will enjoy views of beautiful scenery comprised of rivers, native forest, mountain peaks, and narrow valleys. You'll likely even spot some impressive local avian varieties, like condors and black eagles. 

Your route will begin at the Las Torres Hostel and will take you over the Ascencio River, at which point you'll ascend about 2.5 km to a lookout featuring panoramic views of the valley below and the surrounding mountains. Then you'll continue through sections of lenga forest until the remaining 45-minute stretch, which is a steep ascent that involves a hard scramble over a moraine to the final path leading up to the viewpoint. 

This is the hardest portion of the hike, However, once you arrive at the lagoon at the base of the Paine Massif and stare up at the nearby Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Paine) jutting into the sky, you'll likely forget all about your exhaustion. Upon arrival, you’ll have ample time to rest by the lagoon and marvel at the amazing rock formations as you enjoy a delicious picnic lunch.

Afterward, you'll begin the return trip back down the trail. The descent takes approximately four hours, at the end of which you'll arrive back to the hotel.

Day 9: Torres del Paine Free Day

One of many incredible views in Torres del Paine
One of many incredible views in Torres del Paine

Today is a free day in Torres del Paine. Take the opportunity to enjoy the park's various hiking trails and breathtaking views. You can choose from several half or full-day tours. 

Regarding the shorter tours, you might be surprised at how much you can see of Torres del Paine in just three or four hours. Whether by foot, horse, or vehicle, these half-day guided excursions are packed with adventure and interesting information about the park’s flora, fauna, geology, and human history. An experienced guide will take you to impressive natural wonders like the Salto Grande waterfall and Laguna Azul. All throughout the journey, you'll pass through exotic lenga forests abounding with wildlife. 

Full-day excursions tend to last between seven and 10 hours, and they leave in the morning after breakfast at your hotel. Embarking on one of these outings gives you an opportunity to explore the best hiking paths, horse trails, scenic roads, and the various lakes of Torres del Paine. For full-day tours, the hotel will prepare a box lunch that you can take with you, as well as enough water and snacks to keep you energized for your park adventure. One such optional full-day adventure is a boat tour to the famous Grey Glacier, which feeds the lake of the same name.

Day 10: Torres del Paine to Santiago

Goodbye, Torres del Paine
Goodbye, Torres del Paine

Today, you’ll take a private transfer from Torres del Paine National Park to the Punta Arenas airport. You'll then hop on a domestic flight to Santiago. Upon arrival in Santiago, you'll have the remainder of the day to relax and explore at your leisure.

Day 11: Fly from Santiago to Easter Island

The moai, Easter Island's literal figureheads
The moai, Easter Island's literal figureheads

Today you'll arrive at the most remote inhabited land in the world: Rapa Nui, or Easter Island as it's commonly known. After breakfast, you'll transfer from your hotel to the airport where you'll catch a flight to the island. The flight time is three hours, so you'll arrive on Rapa Nui with most of the afternoon to spare. After transferring to your hotel and checking in, you can spend the remainder of the day exploring.

There are around 600 stone figures, or moai, on this island some of which reach 10 meters in height. You’ll find many of them standing on the stone ahu (ceremonial pillars) that dot the island’s green hillsides. They were fashioned out of volcanic rock by obsidian tools by the first settlers from Polynesia sometime after they arrived in 800 CE. The figures themselves represented deceased leaders of the five tribes that once inhabited the island and supposedly offered spiritual protection. Around the 16th century the islanders exceeded their natural resources, and as a result of famine and war they tore down many of the idols, having believed them to have outlasted their usefulness.

By the 19th century Europeans, smallpox, and slavery arrived, wiping out some of the population while more emigrated to Tahiti to work on the plantations. Eventually, the population rebounded and Rapa Nui was annexed to Chile in 1888. Today locals are governed ostensibly under the oversight of a council of indigenous chiefs.

Some recommended activities on the island include:

  • Explore Hanga Roa. This is the main town on Easter Island. There are just over 3,000 residents here, which comprise 87% of the island's inhabitants. Hanga Roa has a small-town coastal vibe and you can find restaurants serving unique food like ceviche, empanadas stuffed with fresh tuna, po'e (a pumpkin and plantain cake), and taro ice cream. 

  • Visit the Museo Antropológico Sebastián Englert. For an intro to island life, come to this anthropological museum and view exhibits celebrating the indigenous patrimony, such as ancient tools, totems, sculptures, and more.

  • Take a hike outside of town to Ahu Tahai, one of the aforementioned ceremonial altars, this one fronts the ocean. Here there are some moai as well as caves nearby. It also makes a great sunset-viewing spot.

Day 12: Easter Island: Rapa Nui Full-Day Tour

Ahu Te Pito Kura, Easter Island
Ahu Te Pito Kura, Easter Island

After breakfast, you will embark on a full-day tour of the island. It's an informative journey that will shed light on Rapa Nui's famous archeological sites. You'll start at Ahu Te Pito Kura, a unique rock structure featuring a central stone that, legend has it, was brought over by a king of the first tribes and supposedly still emits spiritual power.

Then it's off to Rano Raraku, an impressive volcanic crater, at the base of which you will find many moai. After that, you'll enjoy a delicious snack at Ahu Tongariki, which is considered the biggest ceremonial platform on the island. Here there are fifteen moai displayed in a row. After touring the site, you'll visit another ceremonial platform called Ahu Akahang and finish the day at the beautiful white-sand beach of Anakena.

Day 13: Easter Island: Orongo & Ahu Akivi

Rapa Nui
Rapa Nui

In the morning, you'll travel a few minutes to the southwest corner of Rapa Nui and the remains of the village of Orongo. Located on the rim of an inactive volcano called Rano Kau, this area enjoys a special place in the island's history as it was the principal site of what's known as the "Birdman" era. The cult of the Birdman was the belief system that took root on Rapa Nui in the 1500s after locals mostly gave up on the moai due to war and famine. 

The cult of the Birdman was also a contest. In order to appease their deity, called Meke-Meke, islanders would hold an annual competition to see who be crowned the next chief. The contest involved a group of men swimming to two nearby islands and waiting some time until terns laid their first eggs of the season. Whoever returned with the first egg became chief for a year (the "Birdman") and Orango was the ceremonial village in which he was crowned. 

You will not only visit the village and the volcano but also a cave by the sea known as Ana Kai Tangata. Inside this cave, you'll see petroglyphs done by the ancient inhabitants of the island. This excursion ends in the early afternoon and concludes the first tour of the day. 

The second tour involves a trip about a mile inland to visit Ahu Akivi. This ahu is unique in that, not only is it home to seven moai, but in ancient times it also doubled as a celestial observatory. That's right, this is where islanders came to stargaze. An interesting feature is that the seven moai all face sunset during the spring equinox and their backs are to the sunrise during autumn. While here you'll take a short hike to two other archaeological sites: the cave of Ana Te Pahu, the largest cavern on Rapa Nui, and the Puna Pau volcano, which for ancient islanders doubled as a quarry in which they extracted the rocks necessary to carve the moai. 

Orongo Tour Duration: Half day
Ahu Akivi Tour Duration: Half day

Day 14: Easter Island to Santiago & Departure

Say goodbye to Rapa Nui
Say goodbye to Rapa Nui

This marks your last day on the island. Depending on your flight schedule, you should have some time to explore Rapa Nui a bit more before transferring to the airport. You'll then hop a flight back to Santiago and catch your connecting flight home.

Deborah
Written by Deborah Hayman, updated Mar 18, 2019